Learning to be a professional

Recently I was asked about how to gain the experience required to work as a professional genealogist. This is a slightly edited version of my answer.

I think the best way to learn is by volunteering as a researcher or library assistant with a family history society and by reading. The book that I found the most helpful is called Professional Genealogy edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, published by the Genealogical Publishing Company, last reprinted in 2004.

There is an online study group that grew out of the Association of Professional Genealogists mailing list called ProGen Study that goes through this book over 18 months – they do assignments and have discussions every month. I took part in the first of these groups that ended last Christmas. I can’t recommend it highly enough as a way of improving your genealogical research skills and for the business aspects as well. They now have a website. They are based in the States but there are a few members from other countries, including Australia.

The biggest differences I have found between researching for myself and for other people are

  • planning the research to complete it in the most efficient manner;
  • writing the report as I go – making sure I have the correct source citation before I put the microfilm or file away;
  • entering the results into the report as I go or as soon as possible when I get home.

When you are wandering around Ancestry for yourself you can take all night, but when you are searching for someone else who is paying you by the hour you have to be focussed and get everything you need first go. You want to avoid having to go back because you missed something the first time.

You might try practising. Think of a question you want to answer in your own research, and then tackle it as though you were doing it for someone else. Analyse what you already know and how reliable it is, write a research plan, carry out the research, and write a report of the results and suggested next steps. You’ll be surprised what a difference it makes. And the report will be invaluable when you next come to look at this part of your research.

You can also apply to do the Certificate of Genealogical Research with the Society of Australian Genealogists. Applications for the first intake close on the 31st March 2010 and the course will take 18 months, with assignments due every two months. YOu don’t have to be in Sydney to do this course, all tasks are assigned and submitted by email.

In the short term, you can start with record retrievals. Whether you charge for this service or you perform Acts of Genealogical Kindness, make sure you cite the copies that you’ve found correctly, and specify all the records or indexes that you searched, whether you found anything or not. Negative searches are also useful information.


  1. Great advice Carole. I’ve occasionally given this subject some thought, but I do wonder if there is a large enough market for such skills as a full time position?

  2. Carole, I agree. People often ask me what one needs to do to be a professional researcher, so I have written a fairly detailed article entitled How to Become a Paid Researcher.

    John, I suspect that very few people in Australia can support themselves (and perhaps a family) from genealogical research alone. Most work part-time to supplement other income.

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